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Virtue of patience is vital for whistleblowers

As a concept, whistleblowing is a two-edged sword. Sometimes, both edges are positive. This is perhaps most clear on a field of play under the control of referees. On one hand, when an official blows the whistle, one side or the other faces penalties for breaking the rules. On the other, the whistle stops the action, preventing unnecessary injury to players.

Off the playing field, whistleblowing tends to have positive-negative effects. While acknowledged as essential for fighting fraud and corruption in government and private business, being tagged with the label can prove a burden. As evidence, look up synonyms for whistleblower. The list includes, informer, snitch, mole and tattletale.

Laws seek to protect those who come forward about malfeasance, and offer inducements in the form of potentially high monetary reward. But taking advantage of either requires determining if you have a case and, if you do, having the patience to endure possible repercussions for as long as it may take to resolve matters.

Every case is different and no one can say how long action will take. But a recent report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office reveals cases in the hands of the Office of Special Counsel face a major backlog right now. The report says cases involving whistleblowing and prohibited personnel practices (read that as retaliation) rose by 66 percent from 2011 to 2016, even though the OSC hired more employees to review just such cases.

Officials cite several reasons for the increase. They include enhanced protection offered by the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act of 2012, better education of workers, and at the same time, increased numbers of improper case filings.

Add to that the normal bureaucratic red tape for processing of claims and nearly automatic approval of requests from agencies for more time to investigate, and it equals delays. The report notes that while the law sets the window for agency response at 60 days, the average response is usually about 170, and can be more.

All this leads the OSC to warn that the risk of a greater backlog is very real and to fear that slowed case resolution will only discourage potential whistleblowers who might be on the fence about reporting.

Blowing the whistle can be scary. But if you have uncovered unlawful activity and wonder what it will take to pursue remedy, consult a skilled attorney to understand your risk-reward balance.

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